YAN LIANKE HAS been pushing the boundaries for years. His novel Shouhuo (Feeling Good) is a wickedly surreal tale of a provincial official who tries to promote tourism in his impoverished fiefdom by renting Lenin's corpse and organising a circus of deaf, dumb and blind people. By juxtaposing Lenin, an icon of communism, with crassly capitalist enterprise, Yan questions the twin values on the mainland today: rampant capitalism and politically repressive Leninism. Surprisingly, in February Shouhuo won the officially sanctioned Lao She Literary Award. 'This shows the tolerance of the award,' said a bemused Yan. That official tolerance may be over. With his latest publication, Wei Renmin Fuwu (Serve the People), 47-year-old Yan has become the first author to have a book banned this year. On the phone, Yan is courteous, but definite. 'I can't talk to you,' says the Beijing resident, in a deep voice overlaid with a strong Henan accent. 'I've been told not to. I have to think about my safety and the safety of my family.' The hammer fell last month when the central government's Propaganda Department issued an edict against Serve the People on the eve of the National People's Congress (which has just ended), traditionally a time when censors grow anxious about perceived challenges to Communist Party rule. The novella 'slanders Mao Zedong, the army, and is overflowing with sex', the edict said. 'Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from or report on it.' When Huacheng, a Guangzhou-based magazine, published the story in a shortened, 50,000-character version - which Yan says gutted the original 90,000-word work - the entire issue of the magazine was confiscated. Other magazines planning to publish the story by one of China's best-known writers - Yan has won about 20 awards - quickly pulled it. Contacted by telephone, editors at Huacheng declined to comment. Serve the People takes place in a provincial army camp during the Cultural Revolution. On the surface, the novella is devoid of the turbulence that characterised the era. It revolves around the lives of three people: a division commander; his attractive 32-year-old wife, Liu Lian, who is 17 years his junior; and his strapping orderly, Wu Dawang, 28. Called to Beijing for a two-month political study session, the commander leaves Lian and Dawang alone in the secluded army compound. Bored, the former nurse begins chasing the orderly, taking advantage of his obedience. When she moves a wooden sign in the kitchen reading 'Serve the People', Dawang is to come up to her private rooms on the first floor. 'Serve the People' is instantly recognisable to 1.3 billion Chinese as Mao's signature phrase, written in his own calligraphy outside the gate of Zhongnanhai in Beijing, where China's leaders live and work. Dawang is reluctant, but also attracted to Lian. And when she orders him to 'Serve the People! Get undressed', he does. They embark on a passionate relationship. Probably wisely, Yan alludes to the sex, rather than describing it. Otherwise, a story about a pretty nurse and a strapping orderly could disintegrate into mere titillation. With the commander's return looming, the lovers take to bed for three days and three nights to enjoy the end of the affair. But something is wrong. Dawang can't perform. They begin quarrelling. 'You don't love me,' says Lian. 'I'm tired,' says Dawang. Dressing in frustration, he accidentally smashes a plaster bust of Mao. It's an 'anti-era, anti-history, anti-social, anti-politics, political incident'. Farcically, Mao's nose bounces across the floor. Lian grabs the phone to report Dawang. The ensuing struggle reignites their passion. In a symbolically fascinating scene, Lian and Dawang, shouting their love for each other and seeking to fan the flames even higher, go on a rampage, smashing busts of Mao, driving nails through Mao badges, tearing down posters of Lin Biao and stomping on them. Their lust egged on by an orgy of political transgression that mirrors their personal transgression, they rip up copies of the Little Red Book - and smash the 'Serve the People' sign into kindling. It's the symbolic and literal high point of the story. The rest, by contrast, is curiously flat. Dawang returns to camp after a month's leave of absence to find that the commander has ordered it disbanded. Anyone who knows of Dawang and Lian's relationship is sent far away, to save the commander's face. After years of marriage, Lian is pregnant. But not by her husband. In an interview with the weekly magazine Yazhou Zhoukan before the book was banned, Yan was asked if he thought mixing the destruction of Mao, whose embalmed body still lies in Tiananmen Square, with the return of lost virility would make it difficult to find a publisher. 'The environment for literary creativity has been improving for the past 20 years, and the authorities have grown more tolerant,' Yan told the magazine. Well, up to a point.